Too Many Herbs.

Behind my house in a little 4-foot by 8-foot raised bed, there are nine basil plants, three thyme plants and two parsley plants along with some spinach, onions, leeks and tomatoes.  It is safe to say that I am growing ten times the herbs I actually need.  I do have an excuse, given that this is my very first garden, but consistently looking at my garden, sighing and making excuses hasn’t really helped me solve my herb dilemma so far.

I know I could just use what I need, offer some to friends and let the rest fade away, but I believe in utility and frugality in the garden.  It was my goal not to waste anything that I grew.  There is a learning curve to gardening (especially while trying to conserve space in the city), but if I decided to grow something, it was now my job to learn how to use it.

So after of an hour of googling preservation techniques and another hour of experimentation, here is a brief tutorial on preserving herbs so they don’t go to waste.

First, I gathered my three herbs: basil, thyme and parsley.  I was taught to harvest basil by snipping off whole branches, leaving at least three nodes remaining.  As long as too much is not trimmed off, the plant will keep producing all summer long.  From here, the leaves are pulled off the branches (this is the part of the plant used in cooking).

Harvesting parsley is similar except that the outermost stalks are always trimmed first, again leaving at least half the plant remaining.  Parsley leaves, just like basil leaves, are then taken off the stem before preservation.

Thyme is even simpler to harvest, requiring far less precision.  Thyme plants are bushy and full, so they can be randomly trimmed along the tops, given a “haircut” so to speak.  Again, the leaves are the part of the herb being used, but thyme is left on the stem (in sprig form) until the end of the drying process.

Once your herbs are harvested, there are several options.  Immediate use is the simplest of course, but I cannot seem to ever keep pace with my flourishing herb plants.  Some other options are freezing and drying.

Freezing works best for tender, leafy plants such as my basil and parsley as well as chives, cilantro, dill and mint.  Here I tried three strategies:

1.   The most common technique is to create a pesto out of herbs and freeze that.  Traditional pesto is made with basil, olive oil, pine nuts, salt, pepper and garlic (a multitude of recipes can be found online), but I made my pesto with walnuts rather than pine nuts.  Basil is the most common thing to make pesto out of, but it’s simple to mix just herbs and oil in a food processor and freeze the paste it creates.

2.   Lay basil or parsley leaves out on a cookie sheet or cutting board.  Lightly paint leaves with olive oil.  I have a pastry brush, so I used that to put oil on very delicately, but I’m sure the back of a spoon or your fingers would work equally well.  After I painted the leaves, I put them into labeled Ziploc bags and into my freezer.  Despite the oil, the leaves will still stick together, but it will help preserve them.  Also, some herb leaves may turn brown or even black, but their flavor will remain.  To use them, just tear off a chunk, cut them up, and throw into a dish as you would do with fresh herbs.

3.   Although they look pretty funny in my freezer, I think my favorite way to preserve herbs is in ice cube form.  All you need is an ice cube tray and a little bit of freezer space (and maybe a warning label for roommates).  I first chopped my basil and parsley into small pieces (as I would like them sized for cooking) and then stuffed half an ice cube tray with each herb.  I filled the tray with just enough water to cover the herbs and then threw it in the freezer.  We are quite limited on freezer space, so I took my finished cubes and put them into labeled bags.  These cubes can be used just like the other frozen herbs, substitute a cube whenever a recipe calls for fresh herbs and let the water evaporate away.

There are several herbs which that do not lend themselves to being frozen, regardless of the method being used.  Drying herbs is much more common for Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Marjoram and Savory.  I imagine there are several ways to do this, but I only know of one, so if you have better ideas, please share them below!  I put my thyme between two sheets of paper towel and then microwaved it for two minutes (my microwave has very low power, I’d advise starting at only a minute).  When I pulled the thyme out of the microwave it was crisp and dry.  I then removed the leaves from the stem and added them to my spice container!

These were the techniques I found that appeared simple and didn’t require any fancy equipment, but just as there are millions of techniques for gardening, there are many methods for preserving your harvest.  If you have had success with freezing or drying herbs, please please share them with me (and all the dedicated F.H. King members joyously reading this blog every week)!  Experimentation, trial and error are the best part of the garden experience!